A Letter to a Friend: Voting in the 2020 Election

In the last few months, I’ve had a number of friends reach out to me about the upcoming election. Many were looking for advice. Others were just hoping to talk things through. But most of them were struggling to some degree with how they should vote for President. I’ve enjoyed these conversations. Some are still going. But until now, I’ve not put down my thoughts on how Christians should think about voting in November. And since I’ve been asked more than a few times, I thought I would sketch out the answer here.

A few caveats.

I’m an evangelical Christian. I’m a social conservative. And of the social issues I care about the most, abortion tops the list. For me, abortion is our generation’s holocaust. It is barbarism perpetrated against the most vulnerable population imaginable. As a Christian, I believe every person is made in the image of God and that each life begins at the moment of conception. So I can’t equivocate on the issue. I believe it to be devastating immorality.

A second caveat is that this article isn’t aimed at everyone. While I hope these thoughts are generally useful, I’m really talking to a specific subset of Christians: those whose consciences are still wrestling with how to vote in November BECAUSE they struggle with the idea of voting for either candidate backed by a major party. If you’re a convinced Trump or Biden voter, it’s not that I don’t want you to read this. Just know that I’m not primarily aiming to convince you of anything here.

Attempting an answer.

I think the first thing I would tell Christians is that they should vote. Living in a democracy is a privilege. And voting is an important stewardship. There are people in the world suffering right now because of tyrannical governments. Having the opportunity to set the trajectory of our government is no small thing; it is a trust and a responsibility. And of ALL people, I most want those filled with the Spirit of God to judiciously and with wisdom exercise the right to vote.

But along with that, I would tell Christians to reject the notion that voting is only ever a binary choice. I know a lot of Christians who employ some version of the “lesser of two evils” approach when it comes to voting. Though I wouldn’t use that terminology (Christians should never endorse ‘evil’), I don’t have any issue with someone using that ethical calculation to vote. 

Voting is always pragmatic to some degree. No candidate or platform is perfect. And even when you vote for a candidate you really believe in, you know he or she will not always speak or vote the way you wish. This is why Christians need to work hard to keep politics in its place. Politics is a necessary component of ordering public life. It is a useful tool, but a horrible savior. 

No party, politician, or platform is capable of ushering in the kingdom of God. When Christians engage in politics, from conversations to campaigning to casting a ballot, we must always remember the limits of what politics can do. Certain policies can make our lives and world better. Certain candidates will lead better than others. But none of that can save you or fulfill your hopes and dreams. 

Politics is a means, not an end.

But to go back to the binary for a second. Some people see the presidential election as a choice between two candidates. That is understandable. There are two major parties. And almost certainly one of their nominees will win. For some Christians, their decision is simple, they will vote their preference between the two nominees. Again, I don’t think that is a huge problem for Christians. It is what most Christians do every four years, regardless of who is running. 

Your vote is not an unqualified endorsement of the candidate you vote for.

I think this is the reason so many of my friends are having issues with their vote this year. For social conservatives, there are many aspects of the progressive edge of the Democratic Party that are deeply disturbing. It’s only been five years since the Obergefell ruling brought same-sex marriage to the whole country. As we look around, we see so much confusion about gender and human sexuality in our culture (particularly among young people), and it is difficult to see how the push to redefine marriage and to jettison traditional understandings of sex and gender aren’t connected to progressive politics.

Beyond issues of human sexuality, there are also massive concerns about religious liberty. It seems like it was eons ago, but the Obama administration’s record on religious freedom was anything but stellar. From suing Catholic nuns over contraceptives to attempting to control a church’s selection of its religious ministers (for which it was unanimously repudiated by SCOTUS), the Obama administration’s record inspires little confidence about the future of religious freedom in a Joe Biden presidency. 

And that is before you stop to think about abortion. Only a few days before I wrote this, Joe Biden was asked at a televised town hall event what he would do if the Supreme Court were to overturn decisions like Roe v. Wade or Planned Parenthood v. Casey (the most important Supreme Court rulings establishing precedent in support of abortion). He responded that he would attempt to pass legislation to make abortion “the law of the land.” 

That is chilling to me.

For almost 50 years America has been locked in a massive battle over abortion. And it all hinges on denying the reality of what abortion is. Few people support abortion. They support “reproductive freedom” and “a woman’s right to choose.” But Christians must say the quiet part out loud: Abortion is violence against the innocent. It is cruelty on a scale so unimaginable that we can’t even effectively illustrate its magnitude.  

More than 50 million children have been killed through abortion since 1973.

Personally, I think Joe Biden’s support for nearly unlimited abortion access and his recent abandonment of support for the Hyde Amendment (which blocks federal funds from being used for abortion) should give any believer major pause about voting for him. Not only that, but if the issue of abortion is a person’s primary justification for voting for his opponent, I find that perfectly reasonable as well. I can’t imagine a situation where someone voting against a candidate who was pro-slavery was asked, “Well what about the other side?” Until it is unthinkable, Christians must not ignore the heinous evil of abortion.

As a brief aside: I think Ramesh Ponuru and Robert George have made the strongest case why pro-life voters should not vote for Joe Biden.

But Donald Trump presents another set of issues for Christians to consider, mostly related to character. Substantially, I find myself aligned with many of his administration’s policies (Note: substantially does not mean perfectly). And I’m as grateful as anyone for the incredible number of federal judiciary appointments the President has made, including three excellent Supreme Court nominees. Yet for more than four years now, I’ve cringed at the President’s rhetoric, at his lack of decorum, at his Twitter account, and in some cases his advocacy of violence, flouting the rule of law, and of his inability to clearly denounce racism or to recognize the dignity of immigrants–even some of our neighbors. And the list goes on and on.

My earliest political memories center around the Clinton presidency. I remember watching the results in ’96 and being so sad about the shellacking President Clinton delivered to Senator Bob Dole. But I also remember the Monica Lewinsky scandal very well. And what I remember most was the moral indignation of the Christians around me. Religious conservatives (who were never fans of President Clinton) were outraged by his behavior and argued that such conduct was disqualifying. Many demanded that the President resign the office. What I remember most, though, was the argument that character was paramount for public officials. To lead our country, to earn our support, to maintain the oath he swore, a person must be–fundamentally–a person of character and integrity.

Those arguments are seared into my memory, burned into my brain. I thought it was right then, and I still think that it is. Character is critical. And we shouldn’t pretend otherwise now.

I mentioned earlier that a vote is not an unqualified endorsement, but it is an endorsement of some kind. And this is why some Christians can’t vote for Donald Trump. They simply believe he is morally unfit to hold the office. I can’t fault those people. After all, they’re literally just maintaining a position many Christians articulated when doing so didn’t require any kind of political sacrifice.

So what should you do if you’re not sure?

Here’s the best advice I can give you: follow your conscience, and don’t torture it. One of my friends regularly reminds me that voting is complicated. And he is exactly right. I don’t know all of the things going through your mind right now. I don’t know what combination of Scripture, wisdom, and experience the Holy Spirit is using to shape your thinking in this moment about how to vote.

If you’re considering voting for Donald Trump, I’m not going to assume that you are endorsing things I know you disagree with. An administration is much more than one person; it’s a philosophy about the trajectory of our nation; it is thousands of people appointed to do the work of government. But if you do vote for him, I hope you’ll have the courage of your convictions and the willingness to speak out against the things that you oppose.

And if you’re considering voting for Joe Biden, I don’t assume that means you agree with the legality of abortion. But I hope you’ll consider that before punching your ballot. I am grateful for Joe Biden’s demeanor, but I think you should be prepared to contend with any number of objectionable policies coming from a Biden administration, some of which will matter to you very deeply.

Finally, never shoehorn your conscience for the sake of politics. Alexander Solzhenitsyn famously said, “live not by lies.” If you can’t vote for either one of these candidates without violating your conscience, don’t. You can consider other candidates on the ballot in your state. You can write in the name of someone you respect. But you don’t have to embrace some kind of utilitarian calculus that says you must vote for either Biden or Trump.

Jesus is the only Lord of the conscience. He doesn’t need you to violate yours in order to accomplish his will. To quote Martin Luther, “to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”

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